So, as I mentioned yesterday, the puppets have laryngitis this week, so I am doing all the talking – although there is quite a bit of pantomiming going on! After they basically tricked me into posting about the role of fairy tales in my current telling of stories, they moved on to getting me to write about soldiers and stories – and two days ago – I wrote a post about the soldiers in my family and how their spoken and unspoken stories influenced me. Yesterday, I wrote about M.’s time in the Turkish military vis-a-vis storytelling. You can read about that here.
Of course, there is a long history of soldiers and storytelling – take just about any ancient yarn and you will find some soldier returning from some epic battle or another. As I got to thinking about stories, and how I love to tell them (both real and imagined stories, oops Karagöz kicked me in the shins, pantomiming “I am NOT not real!”), I have also come around to thinking about the students I have had lately – and how their stories have impacted me. I teach in a program that primarily prepares students to do social work with people in the public sector – and with the advent and continuation of the Iraqi and Afghanistani theatres of war-occupation, veterans have been an increasing stream into our program…
As a professor in a social work program, when I meet and advise my students, their stories tumble out of them – happy ones, sad ones – all of the ones that lead them to choose to become social workers. In addition to being my most hard-working, motivated and respectful students – my students with military histories are usually right out there with their stories. I will tell you about the three that rise up most for me and whose faces and stories (mostly untold) haunt me a bit.
I will never forget meeting X., who had done 2 tours in Iraq as a mental health counselor with only half of his training done. Although clearly somewhat tormented by his experience and also somewhat reactionary to authority, he pursued his degree doggedly. Sitting with him through a study-tour of German social service systems, I learned a lot about his preparation – and lack thereof – to deal with the kinds of trauma he saw in the field. His joie-de-vivre seemed to be heightened after what he had seen – but the ghosts seemed right behind the door too. He didn’t say much, but what he did say, well, it has stuck with me, in mental images. I know he will make a wonderful therapist – and has been with the Veteran’s Administration since his graduation. X. put veterans on my map – and I started to weave veteran-related content into my courses.
And then there was D. He was a hoot and a holler. Still active in the reserve forces, he was often deployed during school vacations and worked hard to get things done way ahead of time. Perhaps the funniest student I have ever had, D. was very scared of my course (research methods) and was not afraid to admit it. Once he was kind enough to bestow upon me some sort of military-metaphored boss role, things were fine and filled with military talk “Yes, Ma’m,” he would say and “I’m tracking, boss,” when he was understanding a concept. We established a great relationship and his team did an amazing project together. D. also was not super forthcoming about his experiences in detail – but I could tell he had seen a lot after 2 deployments. He spoke mostly about the camaraderie of his fellow soldiers and how this got them through the days and nights…and how it still does. He used this imagery and these stories to motivate his research team in my class – to wonderful end. And he also reached out to the young reservists and veterans in our program…including M., who needed a lot of support. Let me tell you about M.
M. was a young woman of color who came into the program as my advisee. I could tell from her semester project proposal that she had been sexually assaulted while in the military. All of my students propose literature review projects on a certain topic – and you can always tell what is driving someone by the choices they make. It’s a dead giveaway every time. Over time, we developed a closer advisee-advisor relationship – and while she never told me the details – and I never asked – the tears flowed freely about what had happened and also about the racism and ethnocentrism she experienced in the service. In the process of her training with us to become a therapist, she realized she needed to deal with the ghosts of what had happened to her…and slowed down to part time. After working in a shelter for women survivors of intimate partner violence, she began to hit her stride, seeing the way forward in her career. She is about to start her final internship as a therapist in a local Veteran’s Administration clinic where they are desperate for female therapists. She often pops in to say hello, to check in – and it is wonderful to see her flourishing as she finds her way. I can see other student-veterans who do not look as sparkly as M. does now – and I worry about them. Thankfully, our University has started a major outreach campaign for this population of students.
These three students, and a range of others, have opened my eyes to stories untold, to being as sensitive as possible to respecting their service – even if I disagree with the conflicts they served in. In some ways, seeing these student-veterans and their mostly untold stories has reminded me of the importance of telling my own untold stories – in this case about the realities of cross-cultural relationships – beyond the hysterical misunderstandings, misguided efforts and scintillating stereotypes – just the everyday, to demystify and share in a way that I don’t often see in the existing writing in this area. I never imagine that the soldier-students in my life would inspire me so, but they have inspired me to keep going in my own little realm that maybe, just maybe, might make a difference for another Turkish-American couple – or at least some interesting reading for someone out there in the blogosphere.
As I look up from the laptop, all of the puppets are lined up in a row on the table, saluting my students….
- Elif Şafak on stories as wall-breakers: Crossing circles, moving between (slowly-by-slowly.com)
- Karagöz: Consider this a formal introduction to himself (slowly-by-slowly.com)
- Puppet laryngitis: On stories, (Turkish) soldiers and writing: Part II (slowly-by-slowly.com)
- Puppet laryngitis: On stories, soldiers and writing: Part I (slowly-by-slowly.com)